Set within the third-oldest building in Washington, D.C. -- only the White House and the Capitol are older -- the National Portrait Gallery hosts a prize-winning work by SCAD graduate Alan Xie through February 2007.
Along with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Portrait Gallery is part of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, which just reopened on July 1 after an extensive six-year renovation.
Last year, Xie -- pronounced “zhee” -- responded to a call for entries by the Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Of the 51 finalists, the Shanghai, China, native was selected as one of seven on the finalist short list.
The award comes with a $25,000 cash prize and a commission from the National Portrait Gallery to portray a remarkable living American for its permanent collection.
“It’s an honor to be recognized by the National Portrait Gallery. Portraiture, which has played a significant role in my life and career, has enabled me to experiment with my passion for creative illusion,” says the 32-year-old Xie.
Xie received his bachelor’s degree in sculpture from the China National Academy of Fine Arts. In 1999 he moved to the United States and began attending the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he obtained his master’s degree.
Currently, he is a full-time professor at Clayton College and State University in Atlanta.
“I’ve been given the opportunity to teach my passion and to convey it to young people, which is an amazing thing,” Xie says. “I specifically work to build students’ confidence in their artistic abilities by teaching them how to develop creative concepts through the proper use of tools and hand techniques. By doing this, they gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of art and expression.”
His prize-winning portrait, “Andrea,” was painted with techniques specifically emulating digital effects.
“My paintings are meant to vibrate much like the flicker of a television screen,” Xie explains. “They seek to highlight the artificial, simulated nature of our contemporary media by bringing attention to the transient, temporal nature of the televisual image, unlike the stable and permanent nature of painting.”
Following are highlights of Connect Savannah’s recent interview with the painter.
Connect Savannah: Tell us about Andrea and what this portrait tells us about her.
Alan Xie: Andrea is a 2D animation artist who used to study at SCAD. The painting is about my memory of her -- a dreamy digital memory.
Connect Savannah: What techniques did you use in creating her portrait?
Alan Xie: It’s pure oil on canvas. I used oil painting to simulate this kind of effect. I used traditional oil painting techniques to simulate a digital effect.
Connect Savannah: Digital effects are usually used to simulate traditional techniques, but you turned all that on its head. Where did you get the idea for that kind of irony?
Alan Xie: It’s mostly based on my experience of editing videotape.
Connect Savannah: Have you seen your portrait in the National Gallery yet?
Alan Xie: It’s with other paintings in the museum, with the presidents’ portraits. I’ve been in several competitions, but I’ve never been to the National Portrait Gallery. They’re in the process of reforming the gallery now, making it more contemporary.
Connect Savannah: As an Asian living in America, how can you explain the differences between Asian design sensibilities and American design?
Alan Xie: This is a very good question. Asian and U.S. artists of course have very different cultural backgrounds. I just went to Shanghai and visited my fellow artists there. Chinese artists seem to prefer more visual context and because of their history, Chinese artists have more of a tendency to cultural introspection. American artists are more focused on effect.
Connect Savannah: What can Asian and American artists teach each other?
Alan Xie: The important thing is to know each other. Especially for Asian artists the important thing is to resist globalism, this so-called cultural nationalism. It is very difficult because you have a certain contradiction when art has been globalized like this. Asian art tended to be framed as a kind of colonialism trap.
Connect Savannah: But globalism also means you were able to come study here. Aren’t there some positive aspects to the globalization of art?
Alan Xie: Well, the American influence is everywhere. The difficult thing for Asian artists in the Western world is that for Asian artists it’s easy to be labeled. Asian art is easy to be seen as a result of a certain tradition of culture. This is very difficult for Asian artists to work through. It needs to be about each individual artist.
Connect Savannah: With China increasingly asserting its role as a major world player, how has that changed Chinese art?
Alan Xie: Before the reforming in China, Chinese art was dominated by socialist realism. Now actually with the development of more of a free market it’s really good for artists, because a lot of international money is rushing to the art market. This gives artists a lot of chance to show artwork in the Western world.
In the meantime Chinese contemporary artists have the burden of how to represent Chinese culture in artwork. A lot of times when Chinese artists think about the market, he or she will tend to do simple, recognizable artwork. This is the negative effect on Chinese contemporary art, because then you have the same contradiction between traditional culture and globalization -- a contradiction about the market and an artist with a very strong cultural influence on their art.
Connect Savannah: How has this affected you?
Alan Xie: I absolutely don’t want to be recognized as Chinese cultural-oriented. I cannot completely avoid the influence, because I lived in China for 25 years. But I want to keep my independent thinking.
My work is about the individual response to digital culture, and how it changes our vision of culture. This is my point. Chinese nationalist culture strongly resisted that kind of tendency.
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About the National Portrait Gallery in Washington:
• Number of objects in the museum’s collection: nearly 20,000 works, ranging from paintings and sculpture to photographs and drawings.
• Web site: npg.si.edu
• Established by an Act of Congress in 1962 and opened to the public in 1968.
• Mission: to collect and display images of “men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development and culture of the people of the United States.”
• Prominent works: “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart; Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis (the image on the $100 bill); Mary Cassatt by Edgar Degas; Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner; Grant & His Generals by Ole Peter Hansen Balling; and Charlie Chaplin by Edward Steichen
• Additionally, the National Portrait Gallery’s collections include portraits of all U.S. presidents, more than 5,400 glass-plate negatives from the studios of Mathew Brady and original artwork from more than 1,600 TIME magazine covers.